The greatest of all October Surprises occurred a bit over six hundred years ago. As the historian Alfred Crosby tells us,
"On the evening of October 11, 1492, Christopher Columbus on board the Santa Maria in the Atlantic Ocean, thought he saw a tiny light far in the distance. A few hours later, Rodrigo de Triana, lookout on the Pinta's forecastle, sighted land...The two worlds, which God had cast asunder, were reunited, and the two worlds, which were so very different began on that day to become alike."
"I saw neither sheep nor goats nor any other beast, but I have been here but a short time, half a day; yet if there were any I couldn't have failed to see them...
"There were dogs that never barked...
"All the trees were as different from ours as day from night, and so the fruits, the herbage, the rocks, and all things."
Yet when we think of October Suprises, Columbus is not exactly what we mean. The October Surprise has been with the American electorate for perhaps a half century now. William Safire codified the idiom in the 1980 Carter-Reagan race. And for those who think that elections have become more shady than ever, Safire's words can serve as a helpful reminder. Safire's thesis: the Ayatollah would release the American hostages in Iran in order to bolster Carter's reelection and, thereby, insure a weak president in the White House. On October 27 1980, Safire wrote in the Times:
"If any further proof was needed that the publicity extravaganza being staged in Teheran this week was to help re-elect Jimmy Carter, that endorsement was it. Ayatollah Khomeini and his men - after imposing a Year of Shame on their sworn enemy -prefer a weak and manageable U.S. President, and have decided to do everything in their power to determine our election result...
"Ask this simple question: Why now? Why, after holding our diplomats for 51 weeks, are the Iranians dangling their release in front of American voters one week before election? For maximum leverage on Mr. Carter, that's why: to extract an arms and money deal that only a desperate candidate would offer.
"All these are informed suspicions, and clearly so labeled, not yet verifiable as facts. What right does a columnist have to circulate suspicions? Answer: The right of the citizen who knows we are all being hoodwinked, and are being deliberately denied the facts until it is too late. We are in the midst of secret dealings that make Yalta look like a goldfish bowl."
What does all this have to do with basketball? Literally speaking, nothing. In part, it's your indulgence of a young historians dilettantish vagrancies...BUT! Indulge me my indulgence. We'll tie these strings together by the end.
The Lig is off-season in October. What we have seen in the last pair of weeks is the NBA equivalent: the February Surprise. Like the rest in the worldwide Lig, I am still floored by the Phoenix Stun. And, while many have come around in the last 72 hours, I maintain, the trade made no sense.
Dare I count the ways? I'll say a big ditto for all that has already been spilled on this issue, but I'll add one more. No one seems to have mentioned quite how disruptive Shaq will be to the Suns half-court offense. Their plays--more often than not--amount to Little Stevie beating his man off the dribble, driving down the lane, around to the wing, and kicking out or floating a teardrop. Good plan, except when you have that 325-pound man standing in the middle of the lane with his almost as large defensive dance partner...
That said, there's so much more to discuss than the good trade/bad trade discussion. When Bentham's Calculus is all added up, I love the deal. Basically because it's crazy. D'Antoni is second-tier coaching genius (behind the Phil and the Mad Riley.) It'll be a treat to see what he can come up with.
Yet their is also disappointment. Most significantly, we have the disbanding of the first franchise in the European Basketball Association. The experiment has failed or, more accurately, the experiment has been called off before the data was in. As I've written before, the bombast of the EBA was always under threat. Like Moneyball in the MLB or the Greatest Show on Turf in the NFL, the EBA was founded on a basic premise. This premise fundamentally challenged Lig orthodoxy. The Suns created a counterculture defined against the dogma that defense and giants win championships. It espoused that the run-and-gun style could outscore their slower more conventional opponents, that the pressure to run with the Suns would force their opponents to shift their strategy. They would torture teams for relying on a slow-foot big man. They would transform the True Center into a vestigial burden. They would punish teams for their strengths.
Now, of course, that esprit de corps, that elan, that bombast is gone. [Toronto and Memphis, stay strong!] D'Antoni and company have taken to the airwaves to repent their former heresy. With tails in hand, they have returned to sports outlets with a simple message: the EBA failed, they need a big man to compete. Their February Surprise: they couldn't change the Lig, they have been changed.
And yet, it still does not all add up. After years of relishing in unconventionality, D'Antoni has given up? Was it all a lie Mike? Was the Europhilosophy just a gimmick of necessity to play small because you didn't have big? Say it ain't so Mike. Say it ain't so. Like Billy Beane or Mike Martz, D'Antoni has always struck me as a true believer, a renegade. The autopsy will no doubt be written in the next few years. But today, let's ask Safire's simple question: why now? You kept winning 60 games. You played with your fully complemented roster for one season. That season, you made it to the Western Conference Finals. Your run was short-circuited by a bone-headed scramble just feet from the bench. You added Grant Hill! And you're winning! What's the dilly-yo?
There are a few possibilities that seem most likely to date:
1) More was wrong in that lockerroom than we could have gleaned. The dissonance between the Suns' winning percentage and their seeming disappointment in themselves has been alarming. On the court they weren't in turmoil. The Chicago Bulls are in turmoil. The Miami Heat are in turmoil. Nine and 39, that's turmoil! Thirty-five and 15, not so much. So, if not on the court, then off. We heard the rumblings of Marion in the off-season. Underappreciated/wanted to be traded. Perhaps those rumblings were even greater than we know. We'll find out; we always do. And I wouldn't be surprised if it turns out that some major shit was going down.
2) The Great Butter Battle. The Lakers went Pau. The Spurs picked up the other Stoudemire. Dallas is pitching for JKidd. Now, it was the Suns turn. If they had waited and their legitimacy had begun to slip, the price for Shaq would have gone up. Desperate times would have called for torrid measures.
Was this the true motivation? I say, who cares. Sometimes a storyline comes around that is too tasty to resist. It's become a Western arms race. Load up men, these playoffs are gonna be FAANNtastic.
3) The most likely reasoning to me, however, is that the pressure to conform just became too great. Hearsay suggests that Suns ownership pushed this deal from the start. Evidence: the seemingly unprecedented (and remarkably successful) media spin campaign the Suns organization has launched since the deal went down. D'Antoni, Kerr, and company have been everywhere, from the key national platforms to local radio affiliates. And it's worked. What began as a publicity disaster has been spun into GM gold. Ask Mike Wilbon, they got to him. And this is where we see the amazing confluence between the October and February Surprises. Media and public opinion has become a campaign of its own. What happened to we'll prove it on the floor? The Suns seem to think they need first to prove it on the front page. In the EBA, they relished the counterculture and mainstream doubting. Now, they seem desperate for acceptance.
4) The Big Iguana. It's easy to pick apart the Suns media-spin. They say they needed a defender to compete in the West. That is perfectly reasonable, except for one detail: they traded for Shaq. You need defense, so you give up Marion? If post defense was the priority, how about Dalembert, the Body, Kaman, or Camby? How about Jermaine O'Neal? Dare I say, something does not add up.
If we get beyond the convention-speak the Suns are doling out to the media, there is a fantastic ulterior motive that speaks to that old bucking-the-experts ethos that has so endeared us to D'Antoni et al. Indeed, the Suns strategy is one that Amerigo Vespucci himself fell prey to. Let's return to Crosby for the case. In the New World the explorers set eyes on fantastic creatures they had never imagined existed.
In the rivers there were eels that defended themselves with electricity, and rays and piranhas. There were monkeys--no oddity in itself, but these swung by their tails! Who had ever seen a bird as strange as the toucan, who seemed more beak than body, and who had ever seen a land bird as large as the Andean condor actually fly? And who, outside of a nightmare, had ever seen bats that drank blood or a snake quite as long as the anaconda?
And then, there was the iguana:
The iguana reminded Amerigo Vespucci of the flying serpent of legend, except for the lack of wings. Vespucci and his comrades reacted to the iguanas exactly as nature intended that the enemies of these harmless beasts should: "Their whole appearance," he wrote of the reptiles, "was so strange that we, supposing them to be poisonous, did not dare approach them."
And here we see the yet untold brilliance of the deal. Is Shaq still Shaq? No. But maybe it doesn't matter quite as much. If the Big Iguana can strike fear in opponents' eyes, perhaps that is enough. Perhaps he doesn't have to be Shaq as long as he intimidates his opponents enough that they change their game plans, become distracted from the Suns true weapons, and, like the iguana, his "whole appearance" is so menacing that they will not dare approach.